Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The post-conflict waltz: Just how free is Liberia?

The Liberian Ministry of Justice unlawfully shut down Stone FM, a community radio station located in Harbel, approximately 35 miles from Liberia’s capital.

From IFEX, International Freedom of Expression eXchange in Toronto.

The premises of the radio station were sealed by a squad of officers of the Liberian National Police led by Captain Suzanna Blackie, commander of the Margibi county police detachment.

Stone FM station manager James King told CEMESP that the uniformed police officers, some of whom were armed with pistols, stormed the radio station and ordered the reporters to leave.

He said the police action traumatised a child broadcaster who was on-air at the time.

The station was accused of broadcasting "hit messages" against the government of Liberia and authorities of the Firestone Rubber Plantation in the wake of a strike action by employees of Firestone.

The employees' spokesperson, Eripmah Caesar, allegedly used the radio station to incite his fellow workmates to stay away from work until the management of Firestone recognizes their new leadership.

Let's not bicker and argue
For all the nominally positive talk about Liberia’s future we publish here at Africa Flak, we have yet to dip into the murkier side of the country’s present reputation with human rights. It’s an important issue. Not to get too academic here, but researchers have found that all aspects of life in post-conflict states can be best described by a “certain amount of uncertainty, insecurity and volatility, a fluidity of rules, a fragility of institutions, and problems of legitimacy for the actors involved,” says the now defunct Post-Conflict Transition team at the Nordic Africa Institute. Human rights and civil rights are no different.

The media, in such situations, present a complicated issue. When institutions are fragile and leaders lack much legitimacy and the people appear to be completely fragmented, any criticism may be taken as a threat against an insecure state. The media in these cases is fueled by the power of ideas. Journalists may not be well trained or even sympathetic to general ideas of fair-mindedness, and may use their power to deceitfully push political agendas. The same goes for political actors in control of organs of the press. Finally, in countries being rebuilt from the ground up, one can imagine new governments are presented with many obstacles and dealing with media issues may fall by the wayside.

That being said, the idea of ranking countries – of whatever political persuasion – on the freedom of their media systems should be regarded as an art form and not a science. In a post-conflict country like Liberia, the question remains how should its commitment to rights be graded? Can we rank Liberia along with the diverse body of states resurfacing after conflicts or should the country be specially weighted among other more stable, and presumably politically healthier, nations?

To make up for this, the Freedom House rating systems are very straightforward, offering up only three categories, which resemble a stoplight: Free, Partly Free and Not Free. For rights across the board, Liberia receives a Partly Free rating, but in realm of press freedom, the country is Not Free.

One big problem, according to Freedom House, is that the Johnson-Sirleaf administration has yet to establish an independent body to regulate journalists and the press and create a more “progressive freedom of information legislation.” (However a bill is currently being drafted in the legislature.) “Nonetheless, access to government information, particularly budget and financial issues, remains difficult owing in large part to the persistence of a disorganized government infrastructure,” the report pointed out. Another negative is that a wide interpretation of libel remains a fear for working journalists.

However, the group pointed out that call-in radio shows are popular and frequently feature viewpoints from the opposition and the government.

Here’s more.

Independent print media have grown significantly since the removal of [Charles] Taylor, and there are now more than 30 newspapers operating in Monrovia that publish with varying degrees of regularity and provide diverse political perspectives. A handful of private printing presses opened for the first time in 2005, but owing to the lack of significant private funding, most print media still publish through the state-owned and operated printing facility in Monrovia. Most Liberians rely on radio broadcasts to receive news, and radio currently plays an important role in promoting and consolidating a culture of participation in political life. Over 33 community radio stations now operate throughout the country without government interference, in addition to 1 government-owned station, but most are still hindered by the irregular power supply. Access to foreign broadcasts and the internet is unrestricted by the government but is severely limited by the dire financial situation of most Liberians.

Africa Flak give the country something of a “free pass” in other aspects of its renewal from failed state, but we very much prescribe to the idea that any human rights violations in this period will only make matters worse down the road when institutions are stronger and the government more confident. It may be obvious to some, but just because some people learned things when Charles Taylor ran the country doesn’t make it right.

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